Henry V

19260472_1446609108731259_5171885934157671035_nPittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks marks its thirteenth year running with a production of Henry V, directed by Alan Irvine.  It is the last in a cycle of plays that mostly focuses on the youthful Prince Henry, or Hal, who starts out as a disappointing prince, drinking and carousing with dissolutes in London’s East Cheap, but eventually coming into his own as heir to the throne and then as King Henry.  With the crown on his head, he is all business and little play, as PSIP demonstrates in their scenic location in Frick Park.

Lamar K. Cheston takes up the challenging role of Henry in this production, a man who must prove himself worthy of his father’s throne and who must convince his country to follow him into his great war with France.  While Cheston nails the seriousness with which Henry comports himself, he lacks the spark of charisma necessary to persuade anyone.  For most of the play, it is difficult to see why any soldier would want to fight for him.  During the Battle of Harfleur, when he must get his men back on their feet and into the fray, his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” rings hollow.

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Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V

But something changes when he must rouse his army before the Battle of Agincourt.  Cheston pours himself into the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the audience gets a glimpse into the kind of king the English must see.  This is not just a moment of overblown oration – Henry believes in his cause, believes that in this moment he will be triumphant over the French and he wants to share in that glory with the men who have come this far with him.  As he says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers./For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”, he reaches out to an audience member and clasps him by the arm.  The spectators become part of the English army and there is a palpable sense that most would stand up and fight too.  This is Henry (and Cheston) at his best.

Though the play is named after Henry, he is certainly not the only character involved, nor is it all serious politics and gruesome battles.  Some of Henry’s old friends from East Cheap, Pistol (Charles David Richards), Bardolph (Ryan Bergman), and Nym (Sarah Carleton) join the army in hopes of striking it rich.  They provide entertaining antics as the scuffle among themselves, but there is also a poignant moment when Henry will not prevent Bardolph’s execution because he feels he must uphold the law which his former friend has broken.

Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V and Princess Katherine
Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V and Amy Dick as Princess Katherine

Princess Katherine (Amy Dick) and her lady-in-waiting Alice (Nick Benninger) also bring a touch of levity to the production.  Alice tries to teach Katherine some English at the princess’s request, but Katherine does not take to it very well (she accidentally says “bilbow” instead of “elbow”).  Later on, when Henry is trying to woo her, there is some difficulty in translating.  And as Katherine tries to avoid Henry’s advances, she throws Alice in his way, almost ending up in a kiss.

Though the set and design of the production needs to be minimalist, Lisa Leibering’s costumes grounded the action in a medieval timeframe.  They distinguish not only the French from the English in general terms (the French in red versus the English in blue), but also contrast the richly dressed French nobility from the more practically dressed English who seem far more prepared for war.  Henry himself wears the same simple tunics his men wear and does not set himself above them with the trappings of a king.  Moreover, the costumes help to denote new characters when actors must double and triple roles.

The Soldiers Company greets audience members with the King's banners.
The Soldiers Company greets audience members with the King’s banners.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks works very hard to give the audience enough material that the imagination can fill in the rest, in true Shakespearean fashion.  Under the shade of a few, stately trees, they conjure up Henry V’s great struggle to make himself a force to be reckoned with and his great victory at Agincourt.  It becomes easy to oblige the Chorus, “Gently to hear, kindly to judge [their] play.”

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ shows are always free, including Henry V but you can find out where they’re playing next by checking out their website. 

The Liar

KINETIC-LIAR-SMALL-RECTANGLEClassical theatre has a reputation among the American public for being stuffy, cumbersome, and just plain boring.  Anyone who has seen a well-performed Shakespeare knows what hogwash this is, but if any more proof were needed, Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of The Liar, adapted by David Ives and directed by Andrew Paul, provides a stunning example of just how relevant and entertaining the classics remain.  A metatheatrical goose chase, it packs in seduction, dueling, and mistaken identities while uncovering a poignant truth under a mountain of lies.

The Liar, originally penned by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille, has been conscripted by Ives, a contemporary American playwright with a taste for the absurd.  Although the play takes a few twists and turns, the basic premise is this: a young man, Dorante (Ethan Saks), who cannot tell the truth adopts a valet, Cliton (Patrick Halley), who cannot tell a lie.  He quickly falls in love with an unknown woman, Clarice (Erika Strasburg), but fails to get her name and winds up getting the name of her close friend, Lucrece (Sarah Silk), instead.  He proceeds to pursue the friend, thinking only his beauty could be named Lucrece, and hilarity ensues.  Oh, and the whole play is written in verse, as the original was (Ives stretches some of the rhymes for comedic effect).

Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Dorante tries to sum up the lesson tidily in his ending monologue: “How liars are punishèd by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise -/But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can far out-fick the finest fictions.”  But what Dorante goes on to say rings even more true: that although the entirety of the play has been a “lie,” this makes it no less full of truth, since that is the essence of theatre, finding truth in a fiction.  The performance has built up to this conclusion, since it has been self-aware from the start, and the characters constantly remind us that we are watching a play.  One of the more humorous instances comes about when Alcippe (Charlie Francis Murphy) exclaims in the middle of a fight with Clarice, “Is this a stage?!  Are these just props?!” and flips a plate of colorful macaroons that stay attached to the plate, shrieking in horror.

Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Although he thinks himself quick and clever, and in spite of all the recurring references from Othello, Dorante is no scheming Iago.  He may have the skill to fool earnest Cliton, but his plots fall apart and he must constantly bolster his wild fabrications with more.  A self-centered troublemaker, Saks still plays Dorante with a charm that makes it impossible to dislike him.  He may not be the dominant figure on stage at the start, but by the end of the show, he somehow has everything well in hand.  Yet the cast as a whole work strongly as a unit.  They interchange the fast-paced verse convincingly and without faltering.  Saks and Murphy, though they have swords in scabbards, fight an intense and physical “air” duel with invisible blades, and even invisible lightsabers, brought to life with Angela Baughman’s sound design.  Strasburg and Silk give us feisty and quick-witted love interests in Clarice and Lucrece, who are no dummies, even if they are susceptible to a charming liar.

Julianne Avolio as Isabelle and Patrick Halley as Cliton in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Julianne Avolio as Isabelle and Patrick Halley as Cliton in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Gianni Downs’s scenic design, Kim Brown’s costuming, and Johnmichael Bohach’s props all work together to convey just enough of a sense of seventeenth century Paris to ground the setting (intricate scrollwork, shoulder capes and rapiers, elegant furniture), and yet tweak these styles to make the production contemporary and playful.  Downs’s design of large blue-washed panels at skewed angles convey the sense of a maze or a puzzle appropriate for the confusing plot.  Brown’s costuming is tailored to each character.  Dorante is outfitted in an orange-peach color (perhaps as a wink and nudge to the Donald) with lace cuffs, setting him apart and lending him the air of a dandy. Cliton’s beggarly lifestyle is evidenced in his worn out jeans and a dirtied shirt.  Clarice and Lucrece at the start of the play are made the yin and yang of each other, the outgoing Clarice in a white gown with a black fan, and the introverted Lucrece in a darker gown with a white fan, a clever choice since the women are almost opposites in personality.  The various touches of anachronism onstage, like the jeans or the metallic pink of Clarice’s furniture, suit the anachronisms flying about in verse.

Kinetic Theatre’s production is a timely reminder of how twisted our lives can become with misinformation, but also how important theatre is for speaking the truth, even if through the means of a lie.  Ives’s source may be a couple hundred years old, but the cliché is right, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Liar runs at the Henry Heymann Theatre through July 30. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.

off the WALL to Hold Benefit for Planned Parenthood

OTW EPR SQExistence, Persistence, Resistance from Off the Wall Productions is a cabaret-style event focusing on honoring the vital contributions women have made in the theater industry, particularly the performers, composers, and lyricists of musical theater.  This celebration of women and their many talents features some of the best musical performers in Pittsburgh.  Cassidy Adkins, Elizabeth Boyke, Cynthia Dougherty, Catherine Gallagher, Natalie Hatcher, Caroline Nicolian, Gena Sims, Monica Stephenson, Katie Trupiano, Sandy Zwier, and organizer Hilary Caldwell have prepared an array of songs written or composed by women, each one near and dear to the heart of the ladies who selected them, and some even come from outside of the musical theater scene.  You will hear tunes made famous by Carole King, Sara Bareilles, Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple, and Mariah Carey.  You might even get to hear pieces from a couple local composers too.  It is an event that is sure to have something for everyone, and truly supports women of all walks of life.

Organizer Hilary Caldwell
Organizer Hilary Caldwell

Even more importantly, the proceeds of the night will go to support Planned Parenthood, one of the most needed health organizations in our country, and also one of the most demonized. The debate over taking away federal funding threatens millions of women, men, and non-binary individuals and their access to not only sex education and affordable birth control, but STI and cancer screenings, gender counseling, and hormone treatment.  As Hilary Caldwell expressed in her statement about the performance, “Planned Parenthood is an organization that changes and enhances the lives of all women – straight, lesbian, bisexual, cis, and trans, of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds – with its medical, educational, and counseling services.  It’s an organization for the people, by the people – what our government is supposed to be.  We need to step up and do the work this administration is evidently unwilling to do, and take care of each other as we battle for our rights.”  If we want to see women’s work in theater continue to proliferate and innovate, we must support our sisters in every aspect of their lives, especially their sexual lives.

EPRHEADSHOTSThe political scene over the past year have been surreal and it is hard to figure out how to stand up for each other, but sometimes the best way of helping is just celebrating our achievements together and finding joy in the midst of struggle.  We resist simply by existing as authentically as we can, and applauding others for doing the same.  Come join these gifted ladies as they exist, persist, and resist.

Click here for tickets. 

 

Sive

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The cut-away of an Irish cottage that serves as a set for PICT’s production of John B. Keane’s Sive (pronounced sigh-ve), looks a quaint place, if sparse and threadbare, but it will house a destructive tableau of hungry, grasping poverty.  What befalls because of it prompts Nanna Glavin’s (Sharon Brady) bitter comment, “Women must pay for all happiness.”  And it certainly is the women who must suffer the most for even the few scraps of comfort left to them.

The play takes place in County Kerry, a southern region of Ireland, in the 1950’s at the home of Mike Glavin (Michael Fuller).  He lives there with his wife, Mena (Karen Baum), his mother, Nanna, and his young niece, Sive (Cassidy Adkins).  Mike and Mena scrape together a meager living while Sive goes to school at the local convent, but they are presented with a chance to escape their poverty when the local matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (James Fitzgerald) sneaks in to tell Mena that an elderly farmer with money to burn wants to marry Sive, and will even pay to have her instead of demanding the usual dowry from the family.

James FitzGerald, Karen Baum - SIVE

James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen and Karen Baum as Mena

To Mena’s initial credit, she scoffs at the match, but the lure of money proves too much of an enticement.  Fitzgerald as Thomasheen, under Alan Stanford’s most commanding direction, plies and plies at Mena, at first keeping his distance, letting the idea sink in, then moving in ever closer as she succumbs to his persuasion.  He even leans over to whisper in her ear, the image of a serpent charming her with temptation.  When she is finally convinced, he closes the distance to clasp her hand, and it seems the devil’s bargain is struck.  Thomasheen continues to hover about the cottage like a dirty vulture, overseeing his work in order to get his cut of the bargain.

But it is not easy work convincing the rest of the family.  Mike vehemently rejects the match when Mena first brings it up, leaping from the table and pacing the small space between the door and the table like a caged animal.  He comes around doubtfully, just as hungry for money (an image made literal as he dumps his day’s profit on his dinner plate) as his wife, although his qualms never go away.  Sive is left to flounder with the increasing pressure from her family.  She tries to protest the marriage quietly, ignoring Thomasheen and her intended fiancée, Sean Dota (Charles David Richards) when they come to call and telling Mena she cannot go through with it, but she can do little to truly defend herself.

Michael Fuller, James FitzGerald - SIVE

Michael  Fuller as Mike Glavin and James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen

In fact, though the play is named for her, it is not Sive’s play.  She stands out from the other characters in her clean, fresh appearance against their dirty and ragged clothing, but she seems a creature apart.  The satchel of books she carries instead of water or farm equipment reinforces this.  She is not often on the stage, but her name is thrown about constantly.  Really, it is Mena and Thomasheen’s play.  They dominate the stage as they plot to marry off Sive and lift themselves out of abject poverty.  It is also a play about all the events that transpired before Sive was born, including her mother giving in to youthful passion and having Sive out of wedlock.  Sive’s marriage is as much a punishment for what her mother did as it is a means to an end, even though the girl has not made any error herself.

It would be easy to hate Mena if Baum had not played her with so much humanity.  She criticizes and snaps at anyone and everyone in the house at a moment’s notice, but she is also a woman frustrated with living side by side her critical mother-in-law who wastes no chance to remind Mena how unwelcome she has been since Mike brought her home.  She has lived a life of constant labor with nothing to show for it and could not afford to wait for a better husband when she was young.  In spite of that, there is still some warmth and even poetry buried deep down inside of her.  She only wants the means to live, instead of constantly surviving.

Karen Baum, Sharon Brady - SIVE

Karen Baum as Mena and  Sharon Brady as Nanna Glavin

Thomasheen is harder to forgive.  The roguishness that Fitzgerald brings to the role can be alluring, and he is not without his own misfortune, but his single-mindedness to sell Sive into a marriage she does not want just to save himself is appalling.  He bends and bows to seem subservient, but he is the one with all the strings in hand and he will pull them to whatever end to keep control.  Thomasheen is a man who makes his living off of the suffering of women, and yet he scorns the roving tinkers Pats Babcock and Cathalawn (Martin Giles and J. Alex Noble, respectively) as beggars.

Alan Stanford makes a timely choice in performing Sive, as we stare down a new healthcare plan that threatens millions struggling with poverty in the U.S. and a president whose policies at large target women and minorities who already have to fight daily for their very existence.  It has long been government policy that “Women must pay for all happiness,” in some way or another.  Sive may take place in 1950’s Ireland, but it could easily be set in present day America, and it is a frightening to think what may happen to our own country if we ignore the little people hurting right now.

Sive runs through May 20th at the Union Project on North Negley Avenue in Highland Park and ticket information can be found here.

Bring It Around Town: Fringe Sunday

Fringe stops for no woman, and today the train kept on chugging.  After the high of yesterday’s performances, I was trying to keep my energy up, but I will admit that I was a little tuckered out.  Still, I was eager to see what today held, especially since I would get to venture out a little more and experience another venue.  At 11:30 I was led into the somewhat forbidding downstairs space at St. Mary’s Lyceum.  One of my fellow audience members whispered that it smelled like a church, and it did have that kind of Sunday school basement feel to it, but the performance we were there to see was anything but forbidding and was definitely not Sunday school material.

16650498-10154952496333582-877048705-nWhat we got was Kevin and Ian: Too Stoo2id; A One-Man Show, a staged variety show with knee-slappin’ bits and surprisingly academic humor.  Although this three-hand one-man show was stuffed with learning and some clever lines, the pacing and delivery prevented a satisfying landing.  The biggest laugh from the audience was during the curtain call when the trio froze in their final pose and awkwardly stage whispered to each other when no one left.  Ironically enough, it was the few scenes with gravitas that really showed off the cast’s acting chops, like Joan of Arc’s defiant declaration just before she is burned (or pied in the face) or Ian’s story of an abusive husband.  Most of the time, the various characters we met just got overplayed.  Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean said it best: “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”

After the awkward curtain call at St. Mary’s, I had about an hour to get something to munch on and make my way over to Alphabet City.  I dropped by Crazy Mocha for a snack and then tripped back across the street to my p1000995_2next venue.  The lovely space upstairs combining reclaimed concrete columns and rich orange satin curtains worked well for Kristin Ward’s Swan?  Ward retells the story of the Ugly Duckling with a few new twists and gently coaxes the audience in to participate.  In this version, Mother Duck knows very well she’s got something different, but special, and Essie, our ugly duckling, goes on a long journey to discover who she is and where she belongs.  Ward’s quietly confident demeanor and infectious smile make for the perfect Essie, but she can deftly take on other skins with the switch of a hat.  She is like a storybook come to life with a very timely message about finding what we have in common with strangers and welcoming new friends with different feathers, or maybe no feathers at all.

Then I needed to rush downstairs to see The Booth.  The lower level of the-booth-photo_origAlphabet City was the perfect performance space, tucking the audience into a conference room with close walls that made the whole room into a booth.  Though it is the shortest production I got to see at Fringe, playwright Lance Skapura gives us a succinct, sweet, and uproarious story about two techies, the seemingly gay Robert (Bruce Story-Camp) and flighty, never satisfied Paula (Chelsea Forbes) along with their sexually frustrated Stage Manager, Athena Patel (Lisa Germ) as they run through a show.  All three actors give a solid performance, but it is Germ who steals the show with her shy openness about her sexual experience and her struggles both wrangling together productions and her own life.  Stage hands so often have to watch grand romances on the stage, but this time, they might get to have one of their own.

I returned upstairs for my last show of the festival, Sophia Mintas Live!  Mintas, a voice student at Duquesne, entertains her audience with her own sophia-mintas-fullsizerender-3_origcompositions, both for the piano and for voice, interspersed with stories from her life, some light-hearted and some heavy, though there is no clear, defining arc to her anecdotes.  It is clear Mintas is operatically trained with a soprano’s range, but she strives for a unique blending of the high-form of opera with a bouncier, more modern sound.  As I walked out of Alphabet City I knew that she and all of the other wonderful performers I have been lucky to witness this weekend have given me a lot to reminisce and savor on my drive back to Erie.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

No April Foolin’ at the Fringe

Thank god (whichever deity of your choosing) for Google maps.  Not only did it help guide me into the city as I drove in from the lovely environs of dreary Erie, but it also got me to the venue for my first day at the 2017 Pittsburgh Fringe on Saturday.  While there are four venues with various spaces and various performances to choose from, I made my way over to the fringes of the festival to St. Mary’s Lyceum for the evening, a little bar with a community hall space in the back that reminded me vaguely of the rooms where my Girl Scouts troop met.  A very simple stage was set up at the far end of the room.  I had never seen a production put on in a space like this before, and I was excited to get a taste.

skinpittwebMy night began with Shedding Skin, a wordless one hour dance performance that feels much more like witnessing a private ceremony or ritual.  In it, the audience observes Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves as she slowly struggles to tear off her old skin, quite literally, starting with her hands and then her arms, neck, and legs until she is “bare” before us, a new creature, free and relieved.  But even when she has wriggled out of who she was, she still holds on to and cherishes what she has left behind by gathering them into a small box.  The dance is captivating, at times reminiscent of the controlled movements of yoga, but other times languid and sinewy like the coils of a snake, or open and joyful like a crane in flight.  The lone performer commits to the dance she has created which commands the audience’s attention, and while the sense of story is blurry here and there, we are left with no doubts about what we have observed together.  After all, it is an outward show of something we have all experienced; we need no words.

The next performance to take the stage depended on nothing but words.  krish-mohan-headshot-pghfringe-tara-arseven-photographyKrish Mohan uses his stand-up comedy routine to talk to us about some tough issues in Approaching Happiness, like mental illness, drug use, guns, and race.  I think Mohan is more than capable of speaking for himself, so I’ll try not to spoil his bit, but maybe I can tempt you with notable phrases like “The Rat Tickler,” “I think the Catholic apocalypse is cute,” and “The Devil is an immigrant on this plane of existence.”  Don’t let these lull you into a false sense of security, however.  Approaching Happiness is not out just for laughs (with unabashed dark humor) – Mohan wants to get us talking to each other about these issues as much as he does.

After a good chuckle, it was time for some magic.  Cody Clark also tries to get wfpl-1us to talk with his performance, but more than that, he wants us to participate; he’s a magician and volunteers are required.  But what sets him apart from the average magician is the story he tells us with his illusions.  From the start, Clark frankly discusses the realities of living with autism as he pulls Thomas the Tank out of a box with no bottom, summons boxes of Velveeta out of an empty paper bag, and restores a cut rope to its whole state.  Like Mohan, he cracks jokes about the stereotypes and his personal experiences, but autism is never made out to be a joke.  Instead, it invites the audience into Clark’s unique world, especially timely at the start of Autism Awareness Month.

Little did I know that I was about to enter my own unique world afterwards with Cockatrice, a production not for the faint of heart, and most certainly not for the kiddies.  Bradley K. Wrenn leads the audience through a very cockatrice-good-goodinteractive quest to help the Chosen One, a fellow audience member, slay the villain and save the kingdom.  He has only a handful of props and costumes that he uses to transform himself into a host of characters, some of them quite disturbing, but all of them very distinct.  The rest of the performance relies upon the imagination, which can be difficult to coax out of people, but Wrenn will beat you over the head until you comply.  And if you comply, you may just get a beer or a chocolate bar in the bargain, and you will certainly have to wipe the tears from your eyes (I’ll let you guess if it is from pain or laughter).  Google maps managed to bring me to the right place, and I am hungry for more Fringe.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here.